Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Critic at Large
"My Children, My Africa"
* * * out of four
Location: Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through June 10
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Discounted parking in the Children's Memorial Hospital parking garage
Box office: (773) 871-3000 or www.victorygardens.org
Rating: Suitable for teens and older
Any teacher who has watched a student's intellect ignite, and any student who has experienced that spark will identify with a particularly invigorating scene in Athol Fugard's "My Children, My Africa."
The scene, which comes in the first act of Victory Gardens Theater's arresting Chicago premiere, consists of a spirited verbal volley between South African students - a black male and a white female preparing for a national literary competition under the watchful eye of their teacher/coach. A literal meeting-of-the- minds, it's a joyful moment, the kind devoted teachers dream of and eager students relish. Within the context of Fugard's play, it carries even more weight in that it speaks to the possibility of tolerance and cooperation in a country long divided along racial lines. But in 1984, the year the play takes place, that dream was far from reality.
A moving production, with solid albeit somewhat static direction from Victory Gardens co-founder Cecil O'Neal, the Greenhouse Theater production boasts fine work from young actors Beethovan Oden and Blair Robertson, and from TV's Clarence Gilyard, who impresses with his impassioned performance as the kind of teacher one appreciates only in retrospect. If you know the actor only from his stints as sidekick to Chuck Norris' "Walker, Texas Ranger" or Andy Griffith's "Matlock," you don't know Gilyard. His performance is one of the best things about this show.
The play unfolds as a series of debates covering race, tradition, gender and politics between a trio of erudite, articulate and well-intentioned people: high school students Thami (Oden) a poor, black young man and Isabel (a vivacious, likable Robertson), a privileged, white, young woman and their devoted teacher Mr. M (Gilyard). But really the overriding issue in this play - set in a small South African town just before the pro- apartheid government began its violent campaign to silence the opposition - is the future of South Africa and the black majority's response to its …